What is CapitalismToday I finally made up my mind about something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I don’t know what capitalism is.
Sometimes it seems to mean more; more stuff, more labor, more money, more transportation, more guns, more butter. The obvious question is, more than what? How much do we need to churn out before we become capitalist? Now I don’t mean to say that because we don’t know a precise number that the distinction is invalid. I hate this kind of argument, and I think it’s false. But still, I don’t know how to begin to find the place where more is enough. And there seems to be no agreement as to where and when it is enough. 1650? 1720? 1800?1830? 1870? 1890? 1920? 1950? 2000? In each period the amount increases drastically. Which period is enough? Or at least, which periods and places can we eliminate?
At other times capitalism is concomitant with the birth of greed. Capitalism happens when people start to want stuff. This could obviously go hand in hand with our definition of capitalism as “more.” But note here that we have shifted subtly. If a society had lots of stuff but people didn’t want it, would that society be capitalist? And conversely if people really really want things, but there are very few things to get, is that society capitalist? In short are these two definitions sufficient, necessary, or necessary and sufficient?
I could go on here, adding things people study to tell whether or not a society is capitalist, including contracts, wage labor, ownership of the means of production and plenty more. We could simply say capitalism exists when all these things are present. That would be fine. But here is the rub; sometimes we seem to study one single definition of capitalism and determine a given society does not posses that property. We the say that society isn’t capitalist. We then sometimes make the odd leap to arguing that some other aspect of capitalism also did not exist, because the first property does not exist. Here we make the implicit assumption that these things are all connected, that if one does not exist the rest cannot, and if one exists the rest must exist. If that were the case, why do we fill out this long list at all? Shouldn’t we just pick one of the definitions and look for that, as if it exists the rest would necessarily exist as well? Are these properties independent of one another or not?
1: I’ll put the claim into more formal language for the skeptical. We say that some property A does not exist. We infer from that some other set of properties, let’s say B and C also don’t exist. So NOT A --> NOT B AND NOT C. This would indicate that B OR C --> A (because if A is not true we know both B and C to be false, since one of them is not false we know A is true). We then repeat this exercise looking for B so that NOT B --> NOT A AND NOT C. Then we look for C so that NOT C --> NOT B AND NOT A. We have now effectively shown that A --> B AND C and that B --> A AND C and C --> A AND B.